Shakespeare’s 400th in Zagreb, Croatia


At the end of April, I spent three days in Zagreb at the invitation of the British Embassy by way of commemorating Shakespeare’s 400th deathday. I convened an acting workshop at The Croatian National Drama Academy on comedy in tragedy in Julius Caesar and Hamlet. 

There were as many spectating from the rows of blue plastic seats as were present on the floor of the black box theatre with me, about 20 / 20 as far as I could tell.  I had not expected a more public workshop; this initially necessitated a certain turning of the students in order to bring the audience in, but eventually I lost touch with the blue plastic seats as I gathered the students around me to set up the next exercise, maybe Cassius and Brutus’ mega tiff in Act 4 played as music hall, Hamlet and Ophelia with 18 courtiers throwing in righteous commentary as the nunnery scene progresses, or Cassius’ description of Caesar’s shortcomings when trying to swim across the Tiber and in his epileptic fit Spain, as narrated against a background of dynamic tableaux vivants.  The students were focussed, energised (in spite of a full day’s work) and very good with turning instruction into creative action. They impressed me, not least with their humour; I was surprised at how much of what they did I found straight-out amusing.  The stand-out was Osric in the asylum that was Hamlet, 5.2. They brought comedy into tragedy by the bucket-load.

The next morning I gave a lecture to the English department at the University of Zagreb entitled ‘What, has this thing appear’d again to-night? Hamlet and Julius Caesar in the time of Islamic State’, which became, at 12 hours’ notice after 2 months’ work, ’18 meditations on Hamlet and Julius Caesar in the time of Islamic State’, not because I couldn’t fit stuff together, but because I had come to write the lecture as blocks of text with rhythms, suppressions, exaggerations; the kind of thing that would be impossible to sustain in an academic paper; performative and scholarly, that was the intention. I then gave my shortest ever poetry recital because my throat gave out and not because they hated me, or at least that’s how we left it when shaking hands 10 minutes later.

Above there’s a brief press video after my lecture shot at the embassy over the road from the university. As well a a throat dying live in front of the camera, there’s a lot of humming and hah-ing for my liking but then I had been asked at the last moment not to mention Islamic State, which lead me directly to make stuff up as I went along. This will be abundantly plain in what is nonetheless a document of me at a certain place and time in celebration of the writer who won’t let me go, though I’ve tried, it’s the speed with which he lays out his plots, his eccentricities, his deeply-embedded sense of sound and silence, his miraculousness with the spoken word.

Later that evening, I performed an impromptu method scene, domestic in nature, under full professional guidance in a pub in front of 6 cameras and lots of actors. I wondered whether this was the usual welcome to the country and how I fared compared to say, package tourists come for the beach but sidetracking to Zagreb for a castle or something.

I also attended an impromptu method acting workshop with some veterans of the Croatian national drama scene, 75 minutes relaxation, making my morning pot of coffee with my eyes closed, sniffing loose grinds that clung to my left index finger after I slid it across to top off the filter. I felt amazing, I’ve no idea why.

My good friends Zvonko and Zvonko asked me back to Croatia to present my directing style at a festival in Istria in August. This is absolutely up my euro-theatre alley. I think I’ll take some Pinter with me, the Croatians do silence very well from what I heard in the three days I was there.

Zagreb is charming, its people genuine, not given to small talk – instant kinship – obviously European with city-centre trams, folk on bicycles, deep yellow and pink-painted apartment blocks that catch the early evening light in the trippy Mediterranean way, as well as The Museum of Broken Relationships, whose lovely staff gently refused to receive me as part of their permanent collection. The food is good and cheap, beer and honeyed spirits everywhere, the place has a quietness to it, clean, dignified, smiley, a pleasure from the daily thousand shocks that Rome is heir to.

My thanks go to Nicole Davison and Renata Skalabrin from the British Embassy for the invitation and kind arrangements. It was a real workout for me; thank you both for the opportunity to celebrate the focus of much of my last 17 years.

My appreciation for their attendance also goes to associate professor Aida Bukvic, Vice Dean for International Co-operation, Assistant professor Franka Perkovic Gamulin, Vice Dean for Academic Affairs, Theatre Studies, and Professor Tatjana Jukic, Department of English.

I don’t think Croatia has seen the last of me.